Two prospective stars of the squared circle toss a medicine ball back and forth. Debbie (Betty Gilpin) is concerned about her prospects with GLOW, the perfectly cheesy acronym—standing for “Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling”—for a perfectly cheesy professional wrestling promotion. She wants pointers from Carmen (Britney Young), the scion of a wrestling dynasty who’s participating in GLOW against her father’s wishes. A former star of daytime who took a showbiz reprieve to start a family, Debbie has been pegged as GLOW’s principal talent, but she’s worried that she’s just not in fighting shape. Carmen, on the other hand, thinks Debbie is being tripped up mentally, not physically.
“The problem is,” she says, halting the game of catch and shifting the rhythm of the conversation, “you think wrestling is stupid.” Debbie replies: “Well it is stupid, isn’t it?”
Therein lies the greatest challenge facing GLOW, the new based-on-a-true-story Netflix series executive produced by Jenji Kohan. The world is full of Carmens and Debbies, passionate defenders of sports entertainment and the people who say “Yeah, but you know it’s fake, right?”, two camps that each regard the other as if they’ve grown a second head. (The Carmens have put a luchador mask on their additional cranium.) But thanks to this unusual, genre-bending, tone-blending TV show, they might be able to better understand one another. At the very least, the skeptics will get a lovingly crafted look at what the true believers see—just as Debbie does when Carmen takes her and another castmate to watch a guy named Steel Horse flatten a mustachioed goon who goes by the copyright-flouting moniker of Mr. Monopoly. Upon learning the combatants’ thorny backstory—involving a shuttered factory, a stolen girlfriend, and an absentee father—Debbie has an epiphany, a common observation pertaining to one of the many types of TV duking it out within GLOW: “It’s a soap opera!”
Producer David McLane and stage-turned-B-movie director Matt Cimber hatched the real GLOW in the middle of the wrestling-mad 1980s, introducing an all-X-chromosome roster to a scene dominated by hulks and giants, nature boys and macho men. Across four seasons, GLOW’s syndicated TV show elevated women wrestlers from undercard novelty to the main (and only) event. The stars of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation wound up getting their own Saturday-morning cartoon, but GLOW stars like Mountain Fiji, Matilda The Hun, and Babe, The Farmer’s Daughter pretty much started from (and often aired alongside) Hanna-Barbera stock. They were larger-than-life figures whose self-explanatory gimmicks spilled over into the laugh-tracked comedy sketches, music videos, and proto-reality-show vignettes filling out the show’s hour-long episodes.
The promotion’s origin story forms the spine of GLOW’s first season, with moneyed pretty boy Sebastian “Bash” Howard (Chris Lowell) and grizzled exploitation vet Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) taking McLane and Cimber’s places at the head of the organization. The talent is painted with a similar brush of fictionalization: There’s Machu Pichu instead of Mountain Fiji, The Beatdown Biddies in place of The Housewives, and so on. But before we meet the grapplers in their full, outlandish glory, we get to know the people beneath the Aqua Net, glitter, and spandex—beginning with struggling actress Ruth Wilder, played by Alison Brie.
Ruth is a smart match for the Mad Men alum and BoJack Horseman star’s dramatic chops—and an even better use of the volatile energy she tapped on Community and in The Lego Movie. In Ruth, creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch give Brie a character worth rooting for, even if she’s not the type of person you’d want to hang out with. Brittle and impulsive, she’s prone to flying off into accents and impressions mid-conversation, an eager-to-please air that Brie attacks with zeal. Ruth is on GLOW’s reality-blurring wavelength well before she walks through every beat of a bout in a one-woman tour de force, a physical-comedy highlight of the first 10 episodes.
Brie’s character is also the type of person who can be summed up by the question “What’s the matter with you?” Unable to find her place in the Hollywood constellation, she winds up at Sam’s GLOW casting call, shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of medical student Arthie (Sunita Mani), party girl Melrose (Jackie Tohn), and the mysterious (and always costumed) Sheila The She Wolf (Gayle Rankin). Flahive and Mensch previously worked together on Nurse Jackie, but it’s the latter’s tenure alongside Kohan on Orange Is The New Black that feels most relevant here. Like OITNB’s, GLOW’s massive cast—14 regulars if you’re only counting the wrestlers—is a well-balanced ensemble, whose members are confidently guided to and from the spotlight by the showrunners. For that reason, it’s that rare Netflix show that’s justified in letting things run a little past the half-hour marker.
There’s a solid sense of which characters are built to carry a storyline, too: Plots for Debbie, stuntwoman-turned-GLOW trainer Cherry (Sydelle Noel), and introverted punk Justine (Britt Baron) have as much bearing on the first season as Ruth’s. Like Steel Horse and Mr. Monopoly, Ruth and Debbie have a complicated history, and their healing process stretches out over the course of these episodes, the emotional violence they’ve done to one another gaining a physical outlet when they become, respectively, the primary face and heel of GLOW. Ruth’s realization that she’s the villain in her own story is an ingenious turning point for the first season, one that’s eventually filtered into the Cold War metaphor framing her kayfabe rivalry with Debbie.
Each of the wrestlers eventually adopts a persona that expresses one big idea or another, slumming filmmaker Sam’s method for hanging on to his artistic credentials. In his mind, the woman are actually wrestling with the labels that society wants to put on them, a highfalutin view that Maron communicates with ease. If only the show itself were as articulate: When Tamee (Kia Stevens) suggests that some of GLOW’s big ideas are actually harmful stereotypes, Sam counters with the philosophy he applied to his faux-filmography of grindhouse fare like Gina The Machina, Swamp Maidens Of The Vietcong, and Couch Of Pain: “I like to push the envelope. I like to jolt people into consciousness.”
Does he actually achieve that aim? GLOW leaves it frustratingly vague. Sam’s argument doesn’t seem to sway Tamee, and the comedic tinge of the scene—the titles of Sam’s films, the airs he puts on—suggests that it isn’t supposed to sway the viewer, either. Later on, when Arthie dons a turban and bandolier to take the ring as a ululating terrorist, she riles up some good ol’ boys in the audience, who hurl racial epithets, saliva, and, eventually, a beer can in her direction. Yet the post-fight reflection on that reaction carries the same sort of shrug as Sam’s rationalization. “Everyone really hated me,” she says to her opponent, Rhonda (Kate Nash). When Rhonda counters that they were supposed to hate Arthie, Sunita Mani casts a downward glance and the show moves on to the next scene.
In the real world, GLOW’s cheeky tastelessness was positioned as a satirical antidote to the squeaky-clean mainstream of the Reagan era, in league with Garbage Pail Kids, Troma Entertainment, or Married… With Children. (It even crossed over with Married… With Children, which pitted GLOW’s Big Bad Mama against Al Bundy in a fourth-season episode.) Each was misunderstood in their own way, but GLOW feels like it’s still making up its mind about GLOW. On the one hand, it gives Ruth and Debbie a sense of power and control they have trouble finding elsewhere; on the other, it makes Tamee and Arthie question what they’re putting out into the world. It’s not that the show needs to either condemn or condone this aspect of its subject matter—there should be a middle ground, but not one that goes as un-interrogated as GLOW’s. In a show about an art form where everything’s black or white, the muddled gray areas tend to stick out.
There’s no questioning the way the show embraces the tackiness of its subject matter and setting, though. GLOW revels in the sorts of signifiers that would be easy punchlines in other ’80s shows: Late in the season, there’s a training montage set to “Dare” by Stan Bush (a.k.a. the Stan Bush song from Transformers: The Movie that’s not “The Touch”) and nothing about the sequence—not its soundtrack; not the fact that it’s a training montage, a filmmaking convention that persists almost entirely through parody—contains a trace of the ironic. So it goes for the first season as a whole, which finds its laughs not by gazing backward with an arched eyebrow, but in character-based moments like Ruth’s overconfidence with a steaming glass of tea, or the musical backdrop for GLOW’s near-disaster of a first show. (It’s Ernest Gold’s “Theme From Exodus,” and it’s the only song Sheila knows how to play on the piano.) The show is still plenty funny in its sincerity, boasting enough comic ringers to leaven the most dramatic material, while getting plenty of mileage out of the screwball friction between striver Ruth and curmudgeon Sam.
This aspect of GLOW is bracing, though not unexpected for a series about second chances, chasing dreams, and professional wrestling. Sam’s opinions aside, there’s little room for pretense between the ropes; through the eyes of the show, GLOW is nonstop pageantry, but the matches are elemental, gut-level stuff. They’re filmed for maximum impact, and every time the actors hit the mat (or each other), you’ll feel it. GLOW is, in part, an underdog sports story, but since it’s depicting a sport whose outcomes are pre-arranged, the sudden twists and turns in the action come across as neither hackneyed nor implausible. Only Kia Stevens came to the series with any prior wrestling experience, so GLOW could’ve turned out as the reverse of the syndicated ’80s series, finding its highest entertainment value outside the ring. But thanks to the work of stunt and fight coordinators (respectively) Shauna Duggins and Chavo Guerrero, there are a few face-offs in the first season that could turn the most dubious Debbie into an evangelizing Carmen.
GLOW needs no persuading to take wrestling seriously. And if it struggles to get some of its larger points across, well, so did the original Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling. But it’s a totally winning, totally unique series, a battle royale of styles and tones that delivers victories to characters who can really use them.
Reviews by LaToya Ferguson will run daily from June 23 through July 2.